Destined to provoke controversy, “The Human Stain” is an intelligent adaptation of Philip Roth’s arguably unfilmable novel. Powered by two eye-catching performances, this story of a man who has lived a lie all his adult life and who seeks one last chance of happiness with a woman half his age seems destined for solid box office, with hefty ancillary a given. But much will depend on critical reaction to the film’s more questionable elements, and especially to the casting of Anthony Hopkins.
Filmmakers must have been aware from the outset of the project’s difficulties, the main problem being to capture the essence of the highly regarded book without making what was powerful on the printed page look ridiculous on the screen. Director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer have pretty much achieved this, despite a tendency to overstatement in Meyer’s adaptation.
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But the bottom line — and it’s one which will provoke the most lively debate — is that Hopkins is playing an African-American, a prospect that seems, at first glance, so utterly preposterous as to be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, not since Mel Ferrer made his screen debut in 1949 playing a basically similar role in “Lost Boundaries” and Jeanne Crain also passed for white in “Pinky” the same year, has such a seemingly wayward example of casting taken place. And yet, if the book was to be filmed at all, some difficult choices had to be made, and finding a well-known actor from either side of the racial spectrum who could convince in such a role was bound to be problematic.
Indeed, the third part of Roth’s trilogy of novels about post-war America (the others are the Pulitzer Prize winning “American Pastoral” and “I Married a Communist”) might equally well have been titled “I Passed for White” (the title of a 1960 pic on the same subject). The story of a distinguished university professor who loses his job and, indirectly, his wife after he is accused of uttering a racial slur is given intense irony by the fact that, all his life, he has hidden the fact he is a light-skinned black. That, more than the Spring-December love affair, is the core of Roth’s novel and of Benton’s film.
On a snowy, isolated country road, a car carrying Coleman Silk (Hopkins) and his young mistress, Faunia Farely (Nicole Kidman), crashes into an icy lake in attempting to avoid a pick-up truck. A narration, spoken by Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), a writer and friend of Silk, takes up the story which begins in the summer of 1998, when the scandal enveloping President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was occupying the minds of Americans.
That summer, Silk, a much-admired classics teacher, in commenting on two members of his class who have not attended any of his lectures, asks rhetorically, “Do they exist, or are they spooks?” They are, he discovers, African-Americans, and they’re deeply offended by what is perceived as a racial slur.
Vainly defending himself before an unsympathetic and politically correct faculty board meeting, Silk resigns. The news literally kills his wife, Iris (Phyllis Newman).
Six months later, Silk approaches the reclusive Zuckerman and attempts to persuade him to write a novel about this piece of injustice. The two become friends and,during one of their get-togethers, Silk reveals he’s having a Viagra-propelled affair with a woman half his age — Farely (Kidman), a sensual, outspoken beauty who, as Silk’s attorney later describes her, is not in his league and not of his world.
At the first meeting between Farely and Silk, she seduces the bewildered but grateful academic. Before long, a passionate affair envelops them, overshadowed by the menacing presence of Faunia’s ex-husband, Lester (Ed Harris), a Vietnam vet with a lethal temper who blames Faunia for the deaths of their children in an accident.
Meanwhile, Silk recalls his youth (he is played as a young man by Wentworth Miller) and his affair with the lovely Steena Paulsson (Jacinda Barrett). After the sudden death of his father (Harry Lennix) in 1944, he rebels against going to a black college and, instead, enlists in the Navy as a white man.
After the war, when he takes Steena to meet his mother (Anna Deavere Smith), the girl is so shocked she breaks off their affair. When Silk meets Iris (Mili Avital), the girl he marries, he simply denies the existence of his family.
The revelation that Silk is not a Jew but an African-American passing for white comes about one hour into the film, but there’s no way to withhold this twist from potential audiences as it’s such a crucial, and combustible, ingredient.
A key problem Benton is unable to avoid is that Hopkins and Miller don’t look (or talk) the least bit like one another. Miller, who gives a strong, muted performance, convinces as a light-skinned African-American in a way Hopkins never does, which is not to suggest that the Welsh-born actor doesn’t give another intelligent, powerful portrayal. It’s just that the believability gap looms large.
Playing a rather slutty working-class woman who’s seen it all, Kidman once again extends her range. She’s saddled with a couple of scenes that don’t ring true (one of which has her talking to a caged crow), but that’s the fault of the screenplay, not the thesp, whose sensuality and passion are raw.
Yet another Aussie import, Barrett, brings cool beauty and potent sensuality to the pivotal role of Steena. There’s strong support from a fine supporting cast, notably Sinise, Harris and Smith.
Pic is dedicated to the late Jean-Yves Escoffier, whose textured Scope photography eloquently captures the various moods and periods of this complex drama. Indeed, all craft contributions are of the highest order.